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1 January 2014

2014 and the future of Latin America’s bioeconomy


The dawn of 2014 in the Amazon. Photo: Diego Aste.

By engineering the genes in an organism it is possible to rearrange its metabolism to produce commercial chemicals in an economically attractive manner; a system analogous to the way in which a computer executes specific functions if provided with the appropriate software.

In mid 2013, the Inter-American Development Bank started in Latin America and the Caribbean the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program, proposing synergistic mechanisms that facilitate biodiversity conservation and regional economic development. In December 2013, the Spanish group ASEBIO convened in Bogotá the first meeting of the South American biotechnology business.

Quinoa, “the grain of 2013″ according to the United Nations, is being studied at the University of Buenos Aires as a source of genes that could enable cash crops to resist climate change.

Brazil’s Braskem, one of the largest petrochemical companies in the Americas, is producing renewable butanediol in collaboration with US-based Genomatica, not from petroleum but from biomass, using a bacterium that normally inhabits our intestine. This is important because butanediol is not produced naturally in such bacteria, and because butanediol is a chemical precursor in the annual production of over 2.5 million tons of commercial polymers whose synthesis otherwise is hopelessly tied to fossil resources. Brazil along with Chile has become one of the best places to invest in renewable energy and production in South America.

Scientists poking around Bolivia’s salt flats discovered Bacillus megaterium uyuni, a bacterium capable of producing biopolymers at industrial scales.

Scientists poking around Bolivia’s salt flats discovered a bacterium capable of producing biopolymers at industrial scales.

In Colombia, the IPOC, part of the U.S. group SynBERC crystallized the governmentl proposal to market the country’s biodiversity. Ecuador, beyond converting biodiversity into commercial products, proposes a knowledge economy within which the exploration of natural capital, from molecules to ecosystems, generates experiences and technology applicable for solving local and global problems in the areas of energy, environmental quality and climate change.

Finally, Latin America made a strong impression in the international genetically engineered machine competition, iGEM, with the participation of universities from Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Colombia in the areas of food, energy, environmental quality, information technology and medicine.

A genomic context

In 2010, Craig Venter reported the creation of the first partially synthetic organism whose genome was not directly anchored to the tree of life but rather the work of a computer. Following this milestone, the  Energy and Commerce Committee of the United States Congress convened a meeting to take a look at the field of synthetic biology in an effort to understand the details and perils behind this technology and how it could help the U.S. economy.

Comparisons between biological and electronic systems became the most appropriate way to communicate the potential of synthetic biology to an audience unfamiliar with the biological sciences: the functions that a computer is able to execute depend on the instructions (software ) that the computer is able to interpret. Very similarly, the metabolic operations that an organism is able to execute depend on biological instructions (genes) that the cell is able to interpret. Two key differences: one, biological systems are capable of self-replication; two, the biological algorithms a cell follows are not static, but dynamically responsive to a changing environment (they evolve). In other words, through synthetic biology, systems biology and bioinformatics we can now explore the potential applications of the myriad life/wetware forms with whom we share planet Earth.

In the case of renewable production, the theory, increasingly implemented, is that we can complement the production based on non-renewable resources with production using biological platforms whose genomes respond to industry and the global economy. In this context, 57% of chemical industry representatives consider it appropriate to reduce the risk that implies a dependence on petroleum, taking advantage of the tools that genetic and metabolic engineering provide for the optimization of bioproduction platforms.


Photo: Juan Fernando Villa Romero

The reaction of the U.S. government to the promises of synthetic biology came quickly. In 2012, the government officially declared the bioeconomy as a cornerstone of economic development for decades to come. Similar proposals from Europe and Russia have been delayed. Although the approaches are different (United States focused on the development of bioenergy and personalized medicine; Europe, environmental quality), the conclusion is that this is the century of the life sciences.

Synthetic ecology raises the potential of synthetic biology to a new level: not only can we organize individual genes in order to construct genomes with specific functions, but also individual species in order to build communities with specific functions. This organization of both genes and species, in order to generate products and services with tangible economic values, is the aim of interesting scientific work in South America, a continent that is home to ~40% of the world’s biodiversity and 5 of the 17 most biodiverse countries in the world.

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